Michael KreponAction, Reaction

The best definition of the “action-reaction” syndrome was provided by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during a deeply conflicted speech before United Press International editors and publishers on September 18, 1967. McNamara used this occasion to rail against the nuclear arms race while endorsing a limited ballistic missile defense, ostensibly against China. [Aspiring wonks: to understand why McNamara would deliver a speech undermining his recommended course of action, check out Mort Halperin’s essay, “The Decision to Deploy the ABM: Bureaucratic and Domestic Politics in the Johnson Administration” in the October 1972 issue of World Politics.]

Here are the key passages:

There is a kind of mad momentum intrinsic to the development of all new nuclear weaponry. If a weapon system works – and works well – there is strong pressure from many directions to procure and deploy the weapon out of all proportion to the prudent level required…

What is essential to understand here is that the Soviet Union and the United States mutually influence one another’s strategic plans.

Whatever be their intentions, whatever be our intentions, actions – or even realistically potential actions – on either side relating to the build-up of nuclear forces, be they either offensive or defensive weapons, necessarily trigger reactions on the other side.

It is precisely this action-reaction phenomenon that fuels an arms race.

McNamara didn’t hold these views when he began his long stint at the Pentagon. Here’s a partial transcript of a private conversation with President John F. Kennedy on December 5, 1962:

McNamara: I think that there are many uncertainties in all of these estimates [of nuclear requirements]. And I would say that my recommendation to you on our strategic forces is to take that requirement and double it and buy it. Because I don’t believe we can, under any circumstances, run the risk of having too few here. So I, in my own mind, I just say, ‘Well, we ought to buy twice what any reasonable person would say is required for strategic forces.’ I think that’s money well spent.

Kennedy: Will it deter?

McNamara: It’s both – it’s principally to deter. And it’s also to give ourselves the confidence that we have that deterrent power…

McNamara became worn down by many cares, including his inability to dampen the Air Force’s, Navy’s and Army’s postulated requirements for nuclear weapons. Arms controllers shared his concerns about the action-reaction syndrome, which lent impetus to campaigns against MIRVs and ballistic missile defense deployments. As MIT’s George Rathjens, who served on defense science panels, wrote in Scientific American in 1969, “Reduction in uncertainty about adversarial intentions and capabilities is a sine qua non to curtailing the arms race.” Rathjens wanted to “somehow break… the action-reaction chains that seem to drive the arms race.” After retiring from active service, some prominent military officers joined this chorus. In 1974, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell D. Taylor wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Any increase in any kind of strategic weapon stimulates the Soviets to emulation and fuels the arms race.”

No-one stumped harder against the action-reaction syndrome than Paul Warnke, who would become President Jimmy Carter’s Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and SALT II negotiator. Warnke wrote that,

“The risk is … that we spend too much and build too much and end up with not greater but less true national security. The acquisition of unnecessary strategic systems to gain bargaining strength in negotiations with the Soviet Union will mean only a comparable response from the other side and a conversion of the arms limitation talks into a spur to the arms race rather than a medium for reciprocal restraint.”

Deterrence strategists were greatly alarmed by Warnke’s dual appointments and chafed at McNamara’s formulation. Albert Wohlstetter thundered that the action-reaction syndrome was a “portentous tautology” in a 1974 Foreign Policy essay. Warnke’s rebuttal didn’t help his confirmation when Foreign Policy’s editors, borrowing his phraseology, titled the essay “Apes on a Treadmill.” Harold Brown, President Carter’s Secretary of Defense and a supporter of strategic arms control, held a sadder and wiser view: “When we build up, the Soviets build up; when we slow down, the Soviets build up.”

The action-reaction syndrome was a staple of the superpower nuclear competition. It was especially pronounced when MIRV and BMD technologies were maturing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and later when new types of intermediate-range missiles made their appearance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Asymmetries in force structure and different time lines for the roll out of new capabilities ensured compensatory steps.

Washington and Moscow weren’t always in lockstep, but they always competed. Even caustic critics like Wohlstetter acknowledged this. His complaint, widely shared by arms control skeptics, was that the United States wasn’t competing strenuously enough.


  1. Jon (History)

    My concern is that Putin is still following “when we build up, the [Russians] build up; when we slow down, the [Russians] build up.” I am not sure how we can bring Russia back into the INF. Would increasing our tactical gravity bombs in Europe with more B61s provide us more leverage, without having to spend the money on a new warhead and delivery vehicle? Should we take the bolder move and declare we are getting rid of all tactical nukes and we are only going to field a strategic arsenal? Can we use New START as a bargaining tool?

    • Rob Goldston (History)

      I think it is time, again, for containment. This calls for us to speak softly and place U.S. troops at the outskirts of NATO. At some point the Russian kleptocracy will collapse from within, as did the Soviet system. Meanwhile we might work on our own social cohesion.

  2. John Hallam (History)

    The implications of the above esay for arms control and for the current US – Russian competition are obvious. The way out is of course, arms control t treaties that limit competition, but ultimately more importantly, a transformation of the relationship so that it is no longer competitive.

    I’m sure there will be those who like the comment above argue that ‘we tried it and it didn’t work’.

    Nonsense. We have never never honestly tried it. And we use comments like the above to avoid trying it.

    • Jon (History)

      Arms control only works when both sides honor the agreement. To say we haven’t tried flies in the face of decades of attempts at negotiations and treaties. We even pushed the big red reset button to no avail. Arms control will work when we can find common ground that benefits both nations, and right now we aren’t finding it.

  3. Ryan (History)

    Action-Reaction as a theory is disproven by real world events, to wit:

    US dismantles North Dakota SAFEGUARD site; Soviets keep and modernize the Moscow ABM site to a new generation of missiles.

    US cancels B-70 Valkyrie; Soviets continue to build MiG-25 and then later the -31; along with deploying large amounts of SA-5 GAMMON (ostensibly the counter to high flying Mach 3 aircraft) around the USSR

    US dismantles continental air defense in the mid to late 1970s; Soviets continue to build up their strategic air defenses; with new SAMs and interceptor aircraft, etc.

    It even extends to conventionals– the US took a very long and protracted tank holiday from the early 1960s until 1980-81 when the Abrams entered service — the Soviets didn’t take a tank holiday, like action-reaction said they would.

  4. Carey Sublette (History)

    It is correct to conclude that action-reaction theory, in its simple, US centric form (US is the actor, USSR is the re-actor) is wrong.

    The Soviets/Russia build things because of their own internal strategies, policies and politics, not because they are aping US behavior. (It would be wrong though to conclude that US actions are entirely ignored.)

    But at the same time, a Soviet/Russia centric formulation that attempts to dictate US policy is equally wrong. If they build it, it does not follow that we should also (i.e. that we should react and copy whatever they do).

    To use an example cited above, in the absence of an effective Soviet penetrating bomber threat, why should the U.S. copy Soviet strategic air defense systems? It would be a waste of money to do so – our threat environment is different.

    When dealing with offensive nuclear arms action-reaction theory is, after graduating from a very early phase of development/deployment, almost completely wrong-headed.

    The historical record shows effective deterrence setting in at very low levels of nuclear capability. If you would lose your five largest cities, plus your political capitol (worse damage than any large nation has ever suffered in war) in an exchange, you are a paper tiger if you try to bluster at the strategic level. It does not matter if you have a 100-1 “advantage”.

    China is well aware of this, and has structured in nuclear forces accordingly.